Good gear—hiking boots, hiking clothing and accessories—makes an important, even critical, contribution to a hiker’s wellbeing and safety. While good gear alone doesn’t ensure a good hiking experience, it certainly can enhance the experience.
Obviously you’ll enjoy a hike—even a hike in the rain—if you’re warm and dry rather than cold and miserable; the difference between the two is sometimes the difference between quality and inferior rainwear.
Apparel makers and equipment manufacturers have made tremendous strides in the evolution of fabrics, weatherproofing and waterproofing, weight reduction. The clothing and products available to the hiker today are significantly better than they were 20 years ago—even five years ago. As a hiker who’s suffered with more than my share of uncomfortable backpacks for hiking, leaky rain gear and flimsy footwear, I salute the gear makers who’ve worked so hard to evolve their products over the years. My comfort and that of millions of hikers has increased immeasurably thanks to their efforts.
Not only has the quality of products increased, so has the quantity. For example, twenty years ago only about a half-dozen brands of lightweight hiking boots were on the market; today, several hundred models are available.
Of course, when is there too much variety, too much to choose from? Only in America can a hiker visit a large outdoor retail store and find four different tick-removers for sale, each brand with a slightly different magnifying system to find the little buggers and a different extractor system for removing them.
My concerns about gear are less about the gear itself than how it’s marketed. Many advertisers target a 24-year old male searching for high-intensity adventure to the exclusion of everyone else who hikes. Look for the magazine ads for hiking products and apparel sandwiched between snowboards and SUVs with mud all over them.
This youngest-demographic-possible obsession of some print and electronic media leaves the huge majority of hikers behind. Words and images are for the most part wholly unrepresentative of the people who hike. Apparently the 20-something male hikers never become 40-something or 60-somethings, never get married, become parents or grandparents. What we see in the ads and stories is a natural world without children, trails without the kind of people we know use them every day—seniors, a mom with two kids, hikers with wrinkles.
Most hikers I know who regularly take to the trail have accumulated a collection of apparel and accessories that was carefully purchased and has been field-tested. These hikers know what they like and what works for them.
Good hiking gear—particularly apparel—can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. If cost is no object—or nothing but the highest end garments will do, spend $25 on a pair of hiking socks, $90 for a sun hat and $600 for a parka. Just know you don’t have spend that kind of money. Know that a hiker doesn’t have to spend like a skier or a golfer to have a good time outdoors.
When it comes to gear, hikers tend to separate by personality into two categories: Early Adapters and Late Adapters. In other words, some hikers like to get clothes of the latest miracle fabric and the latest electronic gizmos, while others wear out their clothes before buying new ones and the most modern electronic accessory they tote is a vintage 1988 pocket flashlight.
You’ll find The Trailmaster just a bit over the line into the Late Adaptor category. While I do try out new stuff fairly soon after it comes on the market, I tend to be very slow and conservative about replacing my trail-tested items with something new.
I still carry a map and compass and sometimes bring a GPS. I carry a cell phone(turned off) for emergency use and average but two calls a year from the trail. I own bladder-style packs but prefer a carrying a water bottle in my conventional day pack. I’d rather stop and drink from a bottle than sip through plastic on the run.
While leaning toward Thoreau (“Beware of enterprises requiring new clothes”) I nevertheless do have my weak moments when I crave the latest gear, particularly after receiving an enticing color catalog in the mail, an e-mail blast from REI, or walking into the hiking section of an outdoor retailer during the holiday season. I particularly like purchasing hiking apparel and accessories as birthday or holiday gifts for friends and family members.
I read Outside Magazine’s reviews, which are to the point, explain a product’s technical features well, and are often quite entertaining. I browse a number of websites to read gear reviews online; I particularly like The Gear Junkie, www.gearjunkie.com.
Just as getting into uniforms helps team members increase their concentration on their game, hikers who dress well for the outdoors and carry the right equipment show a certain healthy respect for the elements.
If you’re going gear-shopping first before you go out on the trail, you might get lucky and get exactly what you need, but I highly doubt it. Don’t try to buy everything before you hit the trail. Ask an experienced hiker what she or he likes to wear and carry. Evaluate gear and apparel one item at a time.